A catastrophic year for the media in Myanmar

About a month ago, Pu Tuidim, an experienced journalist in Myanmar’s Chin State, close to the country’s borders with India and Bangladesh, had been interviewing members of a local resistance group opposed to the ruling military junta when the junta’s soldiers arrested him, along with at least nine other people. According to Burma News International, a media group that Pu Tuidim co-founded, the soldiers used their detainees as human shields as they traveled between villages, then tortured them, executed them, and dumped the bodies. An official with the resistance group told The Irrawaddy that Pu Tuidim appeared to have been treated the worst of the detainees; his body was found with broken arms, and his fingers, face, and mouth had been mutilated. A colleague told the Committee to Protect Journalists that the soldiers confiscated Pu Tuidim’s laptop, and so had probably known that he was a journalist before the massacre. He was fifty-five years old.

A year ago yesterday, the junta seized power in a coup, overthrowing Myanmar’s fledgling civilian government. The months since have been dire for press freedom, which wasn’t in a great state in Myanmar to begin with. The coup ushered in a period of sharp uncertainty for journalists—“Even though I foresaw the coup,” Swe Win, the editor-in-exile of Myanmar Now, told CJR’s E. Tammy Kim at the time, “I did not foresee the brutal way it would be launched”—that soon resolved into repression and more brutality. The junta raided and revoked the licenses of numerous independent newsrooms, including Myanmar Now, as part of a broader crackdown that also entailed restricting the internet and ordering civilians in some areas to hand in their satellite dishes. Soldiers shot and wounded several photojournalists covering protests against the junta. Many journalists fled the country; dozens more were arrested, including staffers for Western news outlets. Danny Fenster, a US citizen who worked as an editor at Frontier Myanmar, an independent news site, was jailed. So, too, was Nathan Maung, another journalist and US citizen, who reported being tortured in military detention.

ICYMI: Stories of kidnapped journalists must be told despite blackouts

Maung was released in June and deported to the US; Fenster, whose case attracted a lot of attention back home, was finally released in mid-November. According to Reporters Without Borders, however, at least fifty-seven journalists—around half the number thought to have been arrested since the coup—remain in jail; late last year, Myanmar vaulted into second spot (behind China) on CPJ’s leaderboard of the world’s worst jailers of journalists, having not placed the year before. And in some ways, the situation for journalists in the country has only gotten worse since Fenster’s release. In mid-December, a court sentenced three journalists with the news site Kanbawza Tai News—Nang Nang Tai, Nann Win Yi, Tin Aung Kyaw—to three years in prison for covering protests; the next day, around twenty soldiers raided the home of Aung San Lin, a reporter with the Democratic Voice of Burma, beat him, and arrested him just hours after he published a story alleging that the junta’s forces committed arson. Two weeks ago, the authorities arrested three staffers with the news site Dawei Watch—Ko Zaw, Ma Moe Myint, and Ko Thar Gyi—at their homes, while also raiding the site’s offices and taking documents.

Then there are the deaths. Pu Tuidim wasn’t the first journalist known to have died in the junta’s custody; that was Soe Naing, a freelance photojournalist who was arrested, alongside a colleague, on December 10 while photographing deserted streets in Yangon, where residents stayed home in a “silent strike” against the junta. A few days later, Soe Naing’s family was told that he had died; a colleague suggested, to Radio Free Asia, that he had been beaten to death in a military interrogation center, where torture is common. Two weeks later, Sai Win Aung, an editor at the Federal News Journal who had been covering refugees in Karen State close to the Thai border, was reportedly shot as the junta launched an artillery attack amid broader fighting with a local resistance group. A colleague told CPJ that they had recently advised Sai Win Aung to leave Yangon since the junta was surveilling him there.

According to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, a human-rights group, nearly twelve thousand people have been arrested and more than fifteen hundred killed in the year since the coup. When it took power, the junta promised elections in a year; it won’t surprise you to learn that that promise has not been kept. (Officials have suggested that elections will be held in 2023, but have not set a date and have made them contingent on the country being “peaceful and stable,” whatever that means.) In the meantime, the junta’s abuses have continued to attract Western media attention, even if they have rarely felt like a top story. The coup anniversary generated a flurry of foreign coverage, as did the announcement, two weeks ago, that the energy giants Total and Chevron intend to withdraw from Myanmar, citing human-rights abuses. (Reporters Without Borders, which has written repeatedly to various companies calling on them to hold the junta accountable, urged other multinationals to follow suit.)

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Many domestic news outlets and journalists, meanwhile, are still doing amazing work covering the crisis in their country, despite the immense danger. Some are now reporting from exile; others have stayed put. After the coup, John Padang, who worked for the 74 Media, a small local outlet, in the city of Myitkyina, became one of the first journalists in Myanmar to be arrested while covering a protest. (“John Padang” is a pseudonym.) He was freed without charge following a night in detention, but in the weeks that followed, his colleagues continued to be harassed and detained, one for six months, and the site’s license was revoked.

The 74 Media is now operating out of an area controlled by one of the many resistance groups, some of which have long agitated for self-determination, that are currently fighting the junta in Myanmar’s borderlands—from Chin State, where Pu Tuidim was killed, to the region bordering China where Padang is currently based. The local resistance group is protecting Padang and his colleagues from the junta for now, but the conflict is escalating, the journalists lack an easy escape route, and even the resistance group doesn’t seem so hot on press freedom. Still, the team “has made it this far,” Padang wrote for The Guardian’s “Reporting Myanmar” series this morning. “We remain committed to keeping our newsroom alive whatever risks lie ahead.”

Below, more on press freedom in Myanmar and around the world:

  • Myanmar: Last month, the junta said that it planned to implement a new cybersecurity law that would, among other things, give the authorities more power to intercept personal data and ban content that they don’t like, while also imposing strict prison sentences on those who use VPNs to circumvent such bans. “The regime banned social media following last year’s coup, including Twitter, Instagram and Facebook—the main gateways to the internet in Myanmar—but people access the sites using VPNs,” The Irrawaddy reports. The junta also moved recently to hike taxes on cellphone-data usage.
  • Saudi Arabia: The Guardian’s Jim Waterson reports that Vice Media is “aggressively pursuing business opportunities in Saudi Arabia,” despite the country’s government having assassinated the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. According to Waterson, Vice secretly organized a lucrative music festival in the Saudi desert in 2020 but worked to keep the company’s name off the event. “Vice last year opened a dedicated office in the Saudi capital Riyadh,” Waterson reports. “It has also had a deal to make promotional films for the country in conjunction with the Saudi Research and Marketing Group, a business with close ties to the Saudi state.”
  • Syria: For CJR, James Harkin, the director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, argues that the British government was wrong to tell him, as well as other editors and journalists, not to report on the kidnapping of John Cantlie, a British journalist who, along with the American James Foley, was abducted by ISIS fighters in Syria ten years ago. “The only consequence of the blackout was to help spread a false story that both Cantlie and Foley had been kidnapped by the Syrian regime,” Harkin writes. “If everyone had known that Foley and Cantlie were being held and brutalized by British jihadis in rebel-held Idlib during the crucial first six months of their captivity, there would have been more chance of pressuring mainstream rebel groups in northern Syria to get them out.”
  • Afghanistan: HuffPost appointed Hamed Ahmadi as its first “Afghan Journalist Fellow,” a position that the site created last year, in conjunction with its sister newsroom BuzzFeed, in the wake of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The fellowship aims to give journalists who fled the country amid the Taliban’s takeover “the opportunity to continue working in their chosen field of journalism,” BuzzFeed said last year. The reporters who came up with the idea “wanted to create a program that had a direct impact on journalists from Afghanistan and set a precedent for American companies to give equal consideration to refugees and the talent and unique perspectives they bring.”

Other notable stories: 

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: An empty street near a railway station in Mandalay, central Myanmar on Tuesday, Feb.1, 2022. Opponents of military rule in Myanmar marked the one-year anniversary of the army’s seizure of power with a nationwide strike Tuesday to show their strength and solidarity amid concern about what has become an increasingly violent contention for power. (AP Photo)